I was in London for a client meeting recently and Charlotte surprised me with a visit after I was finished. It goes without saying that the depths of my delight as this surprise are quite indescribable. One of our activities was to visit the National Gallery. One of the first pieces of transcendent religious art which we saw was The Annunciation by Carlo Crivelli. This masterpiece was completed in 1486 and is an example of the late Gothic Italian style.

Born in Venice, he absorbed the influences of the Vivarini, the Bellini, and Andrea Mantegna to create an elegant, profuse, effusive, and extreme style, dominated by strong outlines and clear, crisp colors—perhaps incorporating just a whiff of early Netherlandish manuscript style. Smart History

The Annunciation is a very important moment in the Gospel and indeed is foundational to the Christian faith. It is the moment the angel Gabriel came down from heaven and announced to the Virgin Mary that she was going to be the mother of Jesus. It is also the moment Gabriel announces that Mary’s cousin, who is a lot older, will also conceive a child (John the Baptist). I have included the full reading and the full painting below:

Luke 1:26-38

26 The angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth,

27 to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary.

28 And coming to her, he said, “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.”

29 But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.

30 Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God.

31 Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus.

32 He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father,

33 and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his Kingdom there will be no end.”

34 But Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?”

35 And the angel said to her in reply, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.

36 And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren;

37 for nothing will be impossible for God.”

38 Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

The below is the upper part of the painting which was the first to transfix me. The way the Holy Spirit comes down from heaven through a swirling vortex and passes through a small golden arched aperture was very moving to me. The strands of light surrounding it look like the strands surrounding the vortex look like the decorations around the host in a monstrance. The gold detailing around the fascia are absolutely incredible to me. Again this is a painting from 1486. The way Crivelli brought out the detailing in this painting astonishes me. Every square centimetre has been considered and rendered with such mastery that I am lost for words. Look at the draped carpet in the top right corner and the colours on it.

Below is the lower part of the painting. I love how the frame of the painting matches the render on the room. On the bottom left we have the angel Gabriel and St Emidius with the Italian town of Ascoli Piceno, of which he is patron Saint. It also shows the beam of the Holy Spirit entering the Virgin Mary and the Holy Spirit represented as a bird. The detailing in this is exquisite, the folded fabric of Gabriel, St Emidius and Mary’s clothing, the grille and plant on the window sill, the gold and red thread of Mary’s bedding, the items on the shelving and the book holder where Mary is reading scripture paint a beautiful picture. Libertas Ecclesiatica is written under this scene:

The inscription along the base of the painting reads “Libertas Ecclesiastica” (church liberty), and refers to Ascoli’s right to self-government, free from the interference of the Pope, a right granted to the town by Sixtus IV in 1482. The news reached Ascoli on 25 March, the Feast of the Annunciation, which is probably the message the official in black is reading. Smart History

Emidius is the patron saint of the town of Ascoli Piceno, and Crivelli painted this altarpiece for the city’s church of the Santissima Annunciazione (the Holy Annunciation). A proud citizen, Emidius seems to have hurried to catch up to Gabriel to proudly show off his detailed model of the town, which he holds rather gingerly, as though the paint hasn’t quite dried. Ibidem

It is unusual to see Gabriel and Mary separate but the message is just as striking: the beautiful joyful mystery of the annunciation. Mary has been chosen to carry the saviour of the world and will forever be called blessed. This painting is an absolute joy and likely was part of the inspiration of the Pre-Raphaelite works which Charlotte and I so love.

48 From now on, all generations will call me blessed.